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Movements pushing for 100% renewables are gaining momentum. Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson says we have the technology to get there

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s the real news. I’m Dharna Noor.

The movement to get to 100 percent renewable energy is gaining momentum. Just this week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill to get to 100 percent carbon free power by 2045, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti just signed a measure aiming to get LA there by 2050, the UK just went over 120 hours without burning coal for the first time since 1882, and a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis shows that this past April, renewables generated more energy than coal for the first time ever. But of course, we’ve got a long, long way to go to reach 100 percent renewables globally. How do we get there? Is it possible?

Now joining us to take that up is Mark Z. Jacobson. Mark is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University, he’s a co-founder of the Solutions Project, which aims to accelerate the transition to 100 percent renewables. Thank you so much for being here.

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Thank you for having me on the show.

DHARNA NOOR: So Mark, you’ve been working on this for a decade now, and a couple of years ago you co-authored a study, a 2017 study, that showed how 139 countries could move to 100 percent renewables by 2050. You created roadmaps to get those countries there, and you basically argue that we don’t lack the technology to do so. So first of all, a lot has changed over the past decade, a lot has even changed since 2017. Is it still possible for 139 countries, or even more, to get to 100 percent by 2050?

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Yes. We developed plans, energy plans, for states and countries and cities and towns to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. And our first step in this was to see, well, is this possible? And we found over and over again that yes, it’s possible with current technologies, at least 95 percent of the technologies we need are currently here. There are a few technologies, such as long distance aircraft, long distance ships that we don’t have prototypes that have been commercialized yet, but pretty much everything else we can go as fast as possible; deploy, deploy, deploy. Solar onshore wind, offshore wind, utility scale solar, rooftop solar for commercial buildings, residences, and concentrated solar power, geothermal power, use existing hydroelectric power, and tiny amounts of tidal wave power.

But also, on top of that, we need storage such as batteries and also pump hydroelectric storage and other types of electric storage and heat storage in underground, in boreholes, in water pits, in aquifers. These are existing technologies to store heat for seasonally, and also hydrogen for some transportation, and we could store that. And combining the generation of the renewables with storage and what’s called demand response, where utilities give people incentives not to use electricity at certain times of the day, we can refine, we can keep the grid stable and low cost everywhere in the world. And so, we think it’s a solvable problem that we just need to deploy on a large scale.

DHARNA NOOR: So of course, since you’ve been doing this work in the past 10 years, there’s been a much stronger push to really get there, to move to more solar, more wind power, more geothermal. But there’s also been, I think we can all agree, a stronger opposition. I mean, under the Trump administration in the U.S., we’ve seen rollbacks of tons of environmental protections. Talk about what that opposition has looked like and what the important is of those movements aiming to get to 100 percent renewables.

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Yeah. Well I should first say that the movement really got going around 2013, that’s kind of when it really started, when I helped co-found the Solutions Project, which was a nonprofit to try to take these energy plans we were developing and educate the public and policymakers about them. And we started in New York and interacted with the governor’s office in New York, and we went to California, interacted with the governor’s office in California in 2015. And both states actually passed laws at the time to go to 50 percent renewables by 2030. And then that accelerated when the presidential election came up in 2016, all three Democratic presidential candidates adopted our proposal as part of their platform, for the U.S. to go to 100 percent renewable energy. So this was part of the platform of all these candidates, and the Democratic National Committee also adopted 100 percent platform.

Subsequently, since 2015, there have been eight laws proposed in Congress for the United States to go to 100 percent renewables. Not one has been voted on yet, and the latest of these is the Green New Deal, which are the seventh and eighth proposals in Congress to go to 100 percent. But in the meantime, many cities in the United States, about 130 cities and towns, have so far committed to go to 100 percent renewables, including major cities such as Atlanta, Georgia and Portland, Oregon and San Francisco and Los Angeles, and also 170 international companies. So this kind of grew from a few papers to entire movements, where now there have been public opinion polls suggesting that over 80 percent of the public in multiple countries around the world, including the United States, want 100 percent renewable energy.

And some states now have actually passed laws, as you mentioned. California, Hawaii, Washington State, New Mexico, Washington, DC, which is a district, and Puerto Rico, which is a territory, have all passed laws to go to 100 percent renewables in the electric power sector, and then there are about seven or eight other states that have laws pending to do the same thing. And so, this is at the same time at the federal level, with the Trump administration, there has not been much at all positive coming out in terms of pushing for 100 percent renewable. So all that’s been going on has been at the state and local level. So despite what the administration has been doing, which is to try to prop up coal. Coal is being closed down far more than it’s staying open, and just due to the high cost it’s just such an uneconomic type of business right now.

And in addition to all the problems that it’s caused in terms of air pollution, health, and degradation of land, these coal mines and coal power plants are closing down rapidly and being replaced mostly by clean renewables and some natural gas, although the gas will also be replaced eventually by renewable energy too. So despite what the Trump administration has done, there’s been such a movement, mostly at the state and local levels, and most of the laws have passed in what I guess we could call blue states or districts. But in fact, if you look at nine out of the top ten states in terms of the percent of wind power installed, they’re all red states where Republicans are. So Republicans and Democrats will benefit from such a transition, because costs of wind and solar and storage and electric vehicles have come down so much. It saves consumers money to transition no matter what your political party is. So people are just seeing the economic benefits of transitioning and that’s why this is moving actually relatively fast.

DHARNA NOOR: The scale of this change–I mean, moving forward in everything from electric powered cars to more solar and wind, that still doesn’t quite stop us from being reliant on coal and gas power, because of course, electric cars are still reliant on this largely coal-powered grid. Often when solar and wind are brought in, natural gas is sort of used as a backup. So wouldn’t you have to also sort of change how the grid is powered and make a bigger changes rather than just acting on, I guess, the supply side? Don’t you also have to sort of make bigger changes and not just instate more electric cars or more solar or more wind?

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Well, yeah. So we’re combining the solar and wind with storage. So right now battery storage, in fact, has come down so much in cost that solar plus batteries is cheaper than natural gas and wind plus batteries is cheaper than natural gas. So in fact, natural gas is also being replaced in Florida, in California, and some other places in the U.S. and around the world. It’s being replaced slowly but surely with renewables plus storage. And so, yeah, it’s fortunate that the costs have come down that we can do that now. But a battery is actually better than natural gas for providing backup power, in fact, because batteries actually respond much quicker, they respond instantaneously to a change of demand, whereas a natural gas plant will take maybe ten to thirty seconds or up to a minute. So it’s actually more cost effective to use a battery on top of the fact that its costs have come down, it’s just it saves money because of the fast response of a battery relative to a gas plant.

DHARNA NOOR: And you also show–you have shown in your 2017 study and elsewhere that this phaseout could actually create tens of millions of jobs. And that’s something that’s really highlighted in the Green New Deal proposal too, that’s the proposal spearheaded by Representative Alexandria Cortez and the youth environmental organization the Sunrise Movement, of course. But they’re aiming to phase out of all carbon emissions by 2030, in a decade, and almost 50 members of the House have signed onto that. Is phasing out in ten years possible? Talk about what the timeline could be, best case scenario.

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Well, our timeline has always been about 80 percent by 2030, and the remaining 20 percent no later than 2050, hopefully earlier. If it’s 2030 or 2035, 2040, all the better, but we definitely need at least 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050 to prevent 1.5 degrees global warming. And we want that much to eliminate–worldwide, four to nine million people die from air pollution each year. So our goal is not only to solve the climate problem, but to solve the air pollution mortality problem and energy security problems, and create jobs along the way. So when we look at–there are certain technologies, as I mentioned, like long distance aircraft, long distance ships, that aren’t commercially available. So try as we might to get everything by 2030, we might not be able to get there because we can’t even implement certain technologies right away. We to deploy as fast as possible, so if we can deploy as fast as possible and get to 100 percent by 2030, all the better, but I think a more practical goal is to get 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent between five and 20 years after that.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. And there’s also been some debate about how to classify renewable, what counts as renewable. So for instance, here in Maryland, there’s been a raging debate about the inclusion of trash incineration in the renewable portfolio standard, the policy that–for our viewers–essentially decides what counts as renewable energy and what gets renewable subsidies. Things like nuclear power have also been debated, or natural gas has been called a bridge fuel by some, but has been criticized fiercely by many environmentalists for its impacts on climate change and also, of course, impacts on air pollution, water pollution. Talk about how we can classify what counts as renewable energy and what kinds of technologies we should rely on to get there.

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Well, in our road maps, the only thing that we call renewable is wind, water, and solar power. So that’s onshore and offshore wind, solar photovoltaics on rooftops and in power plants, concentrated solar power, geothermal power, tidal wave power, and existing hydroelectric. So we do not count biomass or biofuels or any kind of bioenergy. The only exception for bioenergy is when you have like leaked methane from a landfill or from cattle manure, that you can extract that methane with a digester, then you have methane that would otherwise leak to the air. So if you can capture it and use it in a fuel cell, not burn it–so not burn it like natural gas in a power plant but use it in a fuel cell, which minimizes its emissions, then that would be the only acceptable bio type. And so, we’re really particular about that because we’re trying to, again, eliminate air pollution simultaneously.

We do not include nuclear power as clean or renewable or energy secure. It takes ten to nineteen years between planning an operation of a single nuclear plant, and that result in emissions from the background grid while you’re waiting around for a single nuclear plant, it costs four to five times more per unit of energy than wind. So it’s an opportunity cost, because if you spend money on that, you no longer can spend money on clean, renewable energy. And it has weapons proliferation risk, meltdown risk, waste mining risk–ten percent of all uranium miners have died from lung cancer, and this is a big problem–and there’s waste risk. So you have all these problems, and we don’t need these problems if we don’t have them with clean, renewable energy.

Also, we don’t include natural gas because it’s not clean in any way, shape, or form. It kills 5000 people prematurely each year in the United States alone due to air pollution, all the combustion emissions from its mining and transport and its use. And it’s also, in terms of its climate impacts, it has a similar climate impact as coal per unit of energy. It’s a little cleaner in terms of the air pollution, but it’s just as bad or worse–on the 20 year timeframe it’s actually worse than coal or for climate problems, so it’s not a bridge fuel to anything. And so, all those other technologies that people propose, they’re usually proposed by industrial people who have a financial interest in what they’re proposing. And so, we do not have any financial interest in this, we’re trying to solve the problems most efficiently as possible. And so, we have to really focus on what’s best and not use second or third rate types of technology.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. And then, I guess my last question is about what you’re most excited about seeing globally. I mean, of course we mentioned that here in the United States, there are a number of states and localities that have signed 100 percent renewable bills, some by 2050, some by 2045. But what else is happening, either in the nation or around the globe that really gives you hope and inspires that idea that this is actually possible?

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Well, this transition will only occur if people want it to occur. And the good news is that according to public opinion polls I’ve seen, over 80 percent of people want a transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy for everything. So that’s one thing. But then on the other hand, we’ve actually seen costs come down of everything that’s relevant, including wind and solar, batteries and electric cars. And technologies have gotten better in terms of like hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and we now have an electric appliances–we have prototypes and commercialized trucks that are electric, long distance and medium distance trucks. We have some electric aircraft, short distance electric aircraft that are flying now. We have boats and other types of machines, industrial machines and agricultural machines that have now been electrified. And it’s also just the fact that so many people are talking about it. The policy makers are on board, and it’s like an international movement that seems to be, now we have some momentum, maybe unstoppable. But there are still barriers right now that have to be overcome for sure.

DHARNA NOOR: And I said that the last question was my last, but I’m also interested in how to do this equitably. Of course, we’ve spent some time talking about solar power, battery operation, but of course it’s not really very good for many people if we continue to mine lithium in a way that’s unjust and inequitable. Talk about how we can ensure that justice for people who are hurt first and worst by both the climate crisis and these extractive industries are really centered in this transition.

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Yeah. Well first of all, I want to mention that there will be a benefit that will benefit primarily people who have been exposed to air pollution in the past, people living near these mines and pollution power plants, because as we eliminate these power plants, the people who benefit will be the ones who live the closest who will benefit the most. And so, there is that benefit. There is a jobs benefit. In the U.S. we estimate about two million net jobs over lost, that’s two million additional long-term, full-time jobs. And so, these will be certainly spread out, but a good share will go to people who need jobs. And so, this is another benefit that we don’t have to spend money on. So the Green New Deal, it had components not only addressing the energy, but it had components addressing jobs and healthcare. It turns out that our energy plans, which the Green New Deal is based on, it not only creates jobs, but it reduces health problems at the same time. So it actually provides some of those benefits, actually a lot of those benefits, without having to pay additional money. Because you get the job benefits, you get the health benefits.

And let me just quantify those. Like the health benefits–like right now, the cost in the U.S. from air pollution health problems is about 600 billion dollars per year. That’s because on the order of 60 to 65 thousand people in the U.S. die from air pollution each year and millions more are ill, and this causes the costs to go up to 600 billion dollars per year. And if we transition in climate change, by 2050 it will cost about 3.5 trillion dollars per year to the world from U.S. emissions alone, and right now it’s costing on the order of a trillion to two trillion. But if we take the 2050 numbers, there’s 3.5 trillion from climate change, 600 billion from air pollution health problems, that’s 4.1 billion. The cost of energy right now in the U.S. is 3.3 trillion for the climate change plus–3.9 trillion plus 2 trillion is 5.9 trillion dollars it’s costing the U.S. in 2050, the fossil fuel energy infrastructure.

If we transition to clean, renewable energy, we eliminate the climate change emission impacts, eliminate the health impacts, our energy costs actually go down by half, from 2 trillion to 1 trillion. So we go from 5.9 trillion down to one trillion, or an 83 percent reduction of costs of energy. So it saves everybody money, it creates two million net jobs, and eliminates mortality from air pollution and reduces the health impacts of it. And so, there’s multiple benefits that will benefit all of the United States of all levels of income. Having said that, certainly you want to make sure that the people who are most affected by–well, we currently don’t have jobs that are–let’s say not are poor or hard to find jobs, that they are targeted to get some of these additional jobs. So we don’t want them all to go to just people who are just looking for a better job.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University, co-founder of the Solutions Project, thank you so much for being here today. And as we continue to see how these movements progress, we’d love to talk to you again.

MARK Z. JACOBSON: Yeah. Thank you for having me on the show.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Mark Jacobson is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, and the Director of Stanford's Atmosphere/Energy Program. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, and also a senior fellow at Precourt Institute for Energy.